Peak Hours (Parts 3 & 4)

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When Mulholland Drive topped the BBC’s list of the 21st Century’s Top 100 Films last year, Time Out film editor Geoff King was interviewed about David Lynch on BBC News. King was subjected to the kind of bullyboy pedantry that has infected BBC journalism since the era of Jeremy Paxman, and apparently now taints its arts coverage. The reporter banally badgered King about whether or not he understood Lynch’s movie, a question which the critic sensibly dodged by challenging its relevance to an appreciation of the film, adding “I think I’m getting everything that Lynch is putting out there”. I couldn’t have said it better and it’s a sentiment that should inform any attempt to write about Twin Peaks: The Return.

I’m not suggesting I’m any better than those who try to make literal sense out of Lynch’s work. I recently clicked on a YouTube video that was doing the rounds on social media called “David Lynch comments on the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return” which turned out to be a montage of the finale with Lynch as Gordon Cole edited in for comic effect, asking “What the hell?” In spite of myself, I still feel the need to rationalise what Lynch (and, in this case, Mark Frost) puts up there on the screen. Yet I genuinely believe that the critical reception of the series focuses far too much on meaning and not nearly enough on feeling.

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Looking for plausible explanations of what happens in The Return immediately reveals its own futility. Take any of the series’ unsolved mysteries, for example: “What happened to Major Briggs’ head?” The question itself is so absurd; it renders any answer moot. I’m more interested in talking about the sublime image of Don S. Davis’s head floating through space like an early cinema moon. Critics are on firmer ground when they ask legitimate questions about cliffhangers from the original series. In the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, these storylines would most likely have been resolved, while here they are surrounded by even more uncertainty. The continuation of Audrey Horne’s story arc from the third season finale is a case in point.

We learn that Audrey fell into a coma after being the victim of an explosion at the Savings & Loan while she was handcuffed to the vault. We also surmise that she gave birth to a child, Richard, fairly soon after. That is exactly as much as we know, and we don’t learn any of it in the scenes in which Audrey features. In those scenes, Audrey appears to be caught in a loveless marriage and has taken a lover. But there’s an odd doctor-patient vibe of her relationship with husband Charlie and the denouement of her storyline has Audrey clearing the dance floor of The Roadhouse as she slow-dances to her eponymous leitmotif, followed by a last-second jump-cut to an expressionistic close-up of her face inside a mirror surrounded by clinically coloured and lit walls.

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In Audrey’s story, there’s a perfectly rational explanation of her fate, a completely fantastical one, and everything inbetween. Viewers can latch on to the “fact” of her coma and ascribe her appearances to an elaborate fictional life created in unconsciousness, which is then broken in those final few seconds as she comes out of it. The reverse works just as well. At any point, we may be in the real world or the realms of fantasy, and they could switch at any time. This is an openness of storytelling seldom seen in television. I also suspect this may be a satirical comment on the trope of “retconning” in TV revivals, as information previously understood to be true in a show is unconvincingly revoked or revised by future versions of it. Here Lynch and Frost become the least reliable sources for what has happened to the characters they themselves created.

The Return keeps original Twin Peaks characters dancing on the edge of cliffs in an entertaining holding pattern that promises more resolution than it can ever deliver. At times, Lynch and Frost (my instincts tell me mainly Frost) pay heed to the viewers’ desire for closure but these are hollow gestures, with the exception of Norma and Ed’s happy ending. As the series drew to a close, it appeared that Cooper might return to his original status in the show, but all the different variations of the character seen in The Return coagulate into the muted, half-speed version of the Dales we encounter in the finale episode.

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One thing Lynch is putting out there that I’m definitely getting is the casting. In the first incarnation of Twin Peaks, the cast comprised largely of Lynch favourites (Kyle MacLachlan and Jack Nance, the protagonists of Blue Velvet and Eraserhead respectively), teen pin-up eye candy (Sheryl Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, James Marshall), veteran actors from Hollywood movies of the 50s and 60s (Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Piper Laurie) and those selected for bodily attributes (The Dwarf, The Giant, The One-Armed Man). The mix of old and new in The Return is already complicated by a pre-existing cast that looks backwards and forwards simultaneously. The dual sense of history and youth is retained but, once again, that means something entirely different in casting The Return.

Lynch’s 21st Century films are represented here by the leading ladies of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern. Though, along with Harry Dean Stanton (in his final television role), Dern connects The Return with Lynch’s oeuvre of the 80s and 90s. She does more than that. By casting her as Diane, who remained offscreen for the entirety of the first run, Lynch has entrusted Dern with giving life to a character that never had one. It really speaks to the idea that Diane is a figment of Lynch’s imagination manifested in the body of his favorite actress. The way Diane’s story plays out onscreen and the agency that Lynch (as Gordon Cole) has in her scenes eerily mirrors their professional relationship.

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Like Twin Peaks, The Return is unashamedly sexy in its selection of actors. But there’s a different aesthetic here. While the original titillated viewers with the eroticism of preppy high-schoolers and teenage beauty queens embracing the darker sides of their sexualities, the revival finds the same quality of desire in adult femininity. Agent Tammy Preston’s hourglass figure, hip-slinking walk and lithe chic is the object of Lynch’s lust. Were this not obvious from the way he shoots her, Lynch’s Cole is also the voyeur in front of the camera. We can draw similar conclusions from Cole, the character once again interchangeable with the director, talking about “one of his Monica Bellucci dreams”, a fantasy which the actress gamely indulges for Lynch. The sexualisation of Diane’s hard drinking, smoking and swearing is another indication of Lynch’s fetishes achieving maturity.

With over a half-century gone since the era of Hollywood that Lynch and Frost plucked their Twin Peaks stars from, it’s remarkable that Beymer and Tamblyn remain to keep the torch of movie nostalgia alight in The Return. This is topped off with the addition to the cast of Don Murray, whose brushes with mid-century Hollywood glamour (having acted alongside Marilyn) and character actor chops make him the perfect Peaker. But The Return also pays homage to the Indiewood cinema and quality television that has dominated American popular art since Twin Peaks first went off the air. Think of Tim Roth and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s pair of assassin lovers as American indie cinema’s Prom King and Queen, with Michael Cera and Amanda Seyfried the first-grade pretenders to the crown. Robert Forster as Sherriff Truman manages to straddle associations with both mid-century Hollywood and the nineties US indie boom.

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While James Belushi might seem a curious choice, for the TV connoisseur his presence puts Twin Peaks into a quality television timeline that acknowledges early nineties virtual reality thriller Wild Palms and then culminates in contemporaries such as Mad Men and The Walking Dead, whose stars make punchy cameos here. Lynch and Frost seem to recognise that the paradigms of pop art have shifted with time. Actors are still cast on the basis of their different bodies (though refreshingly not made to play mythical creatures this time) but there’s a few nice twists on the theme. I was particularly enamoured of the three Las Vegas detectives, all named Fusco (and possibly all brothers), who have a heavyset uniformity that makes them seem like actors all waiting to audition for the same part.

In short, there are ways to appreciate Twin Peaks: The Return that don’t involve interpreting it. We should enjoy the freedom that Lynch and Frost give us to experience the characters without the burden of story arcs hanging over them. Sometimes, the significance of characters is not related to their role in the story but is closer to the actor playing them, and what they mean to the world of the show. I don’t feel cheated and I hope others don’t either.

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